Anatomy of a Control Freak*

Is he power-mad, or simply a good leader?

by Sylvia Cary
Reprinted with permission from Joe Weider’s Men’s Fitness May 1993

Are you now, or have you ever been, a control freak? Ever worked for one? Lived with one? Thirty years ago, the term hadn’t even been coined. Today men are routinely accused of trying to exercise control, as if the very effort is a crime.

“I don’t know anything that stands in the way of a man’s success more than does this issue of control,” says Stephen Johnson, Ph.D., psychotherapist and executive director of Men’s Center Los Angeles. “It causes more trouble in a man’s work and in his relationships than anything else.”

Johnson, based in Woodland Hills, California, has been working with men and men’s issues for more than 25 years. He’s active in what’s loosely referred to as the “men’s movement” and conducts workshops for men all over the country. “I don’t like the term ‘control freak’,” Johnson says, “because it makes it seem as if all controlling is bad, and it’s not. There are good controllers and bad controllers, and it’s the bad, or ‘dysfunctional’ controllers who make everybody crazy. The good, or ‘functional’ controllers are the leaders, the mentors, the creative bosses. They are the guys you want to have around.”

Then there are the others…

Controller Curb Thyself

If you don’t know whether or not you tend to over-exercise control, listen to feedback. Has anyone called you a control freak or accused you of trying to control him? How many times? There’s an expression: “If 10 people tell you you’re drunk, you’d better lie down.” Other self-evaluation tips:

  • Notice if people behave differently around you than they do around other people. Around you, do they appear to consider their words carefully? Do they dare disagree with you? Do they laugh more easily with others than with you?
  • What price have you paid for your controlling behavior? Have wives or lovers left you? Have employees quit? Have children left home early, or taken to hiding in their rooms?
  • Are you willing to do anything about it? Join a support group? Go to a seminar or workshop? Read a self-help book?
  • Stop “helping” so much. Unless asked, don’t automatically offer advice. Let other people make mistakes and experience hard knocks. It’s the only way they can become functional and strong.
  • Practice “acceptance.” Let other people be who they are Ñ and who they are not. The truth is, we’re all powerless over others anyway.
  • Find a mentor to “model” yourself after, and learn from him how to become a functional rather than a dysfunctional controller.
  • When you become a functional controller, pass it on. Become a mentor to another man.

Portrait Of A “Bad” Controller

Gene is president of a small company. He has to make frequent buying trips, and whenever he’s away, all work back at the office comes to a screeching halt. Why? Because he doesn’t trust his staff to make decisions without “botching it.” So everything has to wait until he comes back. True, it’s his company, but sometimes this results in lost business opportunities, which affects everybody. Even when Gene’s in the office, he’s hard to deal with because he seems obsessed with “catching” people at mistakes. Needless to say, turnover is high.

Charles is married with two sons. Whenever one of his children presents him with a problem, he jumps in to “help” because he just can’t stand seeing them in pain. He gives them advice Ñ and then gets angry when it’s not followed. Once when his wife mentioned that she’d been thinking of taking a part-time job, he “made a few calls” and got one for her, and he was mystified when she resented it.

Lee is engaged to Cindy. He rules the roost with absolute authority. He watches Cindy’s every move, scrutinizes what she does with her time, how she manages her money and what she wears. He’s a benevolent dictator who uses approval and disapproval to finesse the outcome that he desires. Many relationships like this never make it to the altar due to the overcontrolling style of one of the partners.

Basically, the dysfunctional controller is the guy (it an be a woman, too) who always has to run the show because he thinks he knows best how events should turn out, and how everybody should behave, Therefore, he manipulates people in his world through a number of means Ñ obsessive “helping”, overprotecting, flattery, anger or rage, withdrawal coercion, threats, insults, lectures, bribes, criticism, self-pity, guilt, punishment, playing crazy (or helpless, or weak, or sick, or suicidal) Ñ all just to get them to do things his way.

The controller seems incapable of a “live and let live” philosophy and is often acutely conscious of what other people are doing that they, in his opinion, shouldn’t. He may be a “neat freak” and obsessively orderly. The controller tends to resist authority and direction and to resent initiative and creativity in others, whether it’s at home or in the office. He’s uptight and his anger simmers under the surface, threatening to spill over at any moment, which keeps everyone on edge. The controller is also likely to be fairly humorless. To him, life is real and life is earnest. When others are around him, they start to feel that way, too.

Bad controllers often grew up in dysfunctional families where they saw others who were terrifyingly out of control Ñ families plagued by violence, alcoholism, chaos, drugs, incest, gambling, betrayals, workaholism, raging, blaming. They saw that the very people they needed to trust ignored them and at times even hurt them. As a result, they resolved that when they grew up they would never be out of control like that again. So they went from being out of control to being in control. “One extreme ends up creating the other extreme,” says Johnson. “Undercontrol often leads to overcontrol.”

Men like this are similar to Tom Wingo, hero of the novel The Prince of Tides. They are self-protective, often charming and emotionally closed. And they are just terrified of opening up and thawing out because they don’t know what dreadful things they’ll find in the Pandora’s box of theirs, which they’ve been keeping sealed. “These are the men who can’t open up their hearts to their women, can’t be loyal to their friends, can’t be creative at work and can’t nurture anybody else’s creativity. They are half-men, and they are sad,” says Johnson.

Portrait Of A “Good” Controller

The good-guy controller, the “functional” controller, is obviously a whole different beast. “He’s task-oriented and wants to get the job done,” says Johnson. “He knows how to manage people, how to delegate. While a poor executive shuts everybody’s creativity down, a good executive takes that creative energy and redirects it. And he’s trustworthy. People look to him as someone they’re going to be able to learn from and count on. The functional controller is usually someone who had good teaching or mentoring growing up – a father who was a successful human being and was loving and supportive of him.”

Too often, though, today’s man feels he should shy away from any type of controlling.

“It’s so easy for us to give in to the idea that controlling is wrong,” says Robert Herstek, a psychotherapist-in-training with Johnson at Men’s Center Los Angeles. “Because of the women’s movement and Vietnam, men during the seventies and eighties lost a lot of their power. They backed off and began overcontrolling themselves. But today men are beginning to want to get back in touch with their masculine power again, and they see it as a good thing rather than a bad thing. After all, all men want power. It’s the world’s greatest aphrodisiac. Men who learn to become functional controllers instead of dysfunctional controllers can utilize their power and energy in a healthy way.”

First Aid For The Controlled

  • If someone with a control problem has a big role in your life, take your first steps toward freedom by asking yourself some searching questions: How does it serve your needs to be controlled? What are you avoiding in yourself by being a controllee? Are you willing to change?
  • Take actions, such as talking to your controller about how his behavior makes you feel. This can’t be done in anger, or the controller won’t listen.
  • Remind yourself that a controller’s behavior says more about him than it does about you. He got that way for reasons that have nothing to do with you and was skilled at it long before he ever met you.
  • Learn how to set boundaries so that controllers can’t control you so easily. Some of the principles used in Al-Anon and codependency groups Ñ such as nonattachment (maintaining a healthy neutrality), acceptance (letting people and things be the way they are), and “letting go with love” Ñ are helpful.
  • If all else fails, you may have to call it quits. Some spouses, relatives, bosses, coworkers, neighbors and friends simply can’t be worked with, and it’s healthier for you just to remove yourself from the game.

Are You The Victim Of A Control Freak?

What about the person on the receiving end of the controlling behavior? How do you know if you’re being controlled by somebody else?

Most experts, as well as the controllees themselves, agree that being controlled by somebody else doesn’t feel good. “Being controlled feels restrictive,” says Johnson. “You get a knot in your gut, or a pain in your neck, or you notice that your shoulders are up next to your ears. You old your breath. You feel depressed. You may sleep a lot. You lose spontaneity. You stop being creative. You don’t feel safe or free. You feel angry. You feel like you’re suffocating. You shut down.”

Other “symptoms” to help you see that you’re dealing with a controlling person:

  • You don’t like yourself when you’re around the controller.
  • You are very self-critical and self-conscious around the controller.
  • You walk on eggshells a lot.
  • You feel as though you can never do enough, say enough, give enough, improve enough or sacrifice enough to make the controller happy.
  • You behave differently around the controller than you do around other people.

Sylvia Cary, a Los Angeles based psychotherapist, is the author of The Alcoholic Man and Sober Lives. She wrote about chronic debtors in the October 1992 Men’s Fitness.